Job Search: How to Become a City Manager

This is a guest post by former city manager Mark Whittington.

Becoming a city manager is an exciting career goal. City managers play a key role in every facet of municipal operations. As a city manager, you will serve the people of your city, hear their ideas and address their concerns, liaison with elected officials and implement new programs. Many successful city managers have a background in law, administration, psychology and government to help prepare them for this challenging career. Read on to learn what it takes to become a city manager.

Education and Training

While an advanced degree is not a requirement to apply for a city manager job, most city managers do hold an advanced degree at the master’s level or higher. Earning a master of public administration or other related advanced degree gives applicants an advantage in job interviews. Public policy, public administration, law, business administration, business management, emergency management and related degrees are all excellent choices if you are an aspiring city manager. In addition to required coursework, electives in writing, public speaking, business, law and communications are good preparatory courses to select. For college students, seeking out internships in campus or local government can provide excellent preparation for a career in city management. These types of internships also look excellent on a resume. Some aspiring city managers earn a bachelor’s degree and go right to graduate school to earn a master’s degree as well. Other candidates may take time between earning a bachelor’s degree and returning to school to earn a master’s degree to gain a few years of related work experience first. Both are excellent paths to gain the education and skills required to pursue a career in city management.

Skills and Work Experience

Most city managers have at least five years of work experience in various municipal government positions before they become eligible to apply for a city manager job. In addition to appropriate education and training, a city manager should have leadership skills, organization and time management skills, team-building experience, experience leading and sitting on committees and task forces, speech writing and speech-delivery skills, and people management, supervision and training skills. The most successful candidates also ensure their resume reflects work experience in these key areas. City managers are responsible for budgeting, planning, policy creation and administration. Because city managers must liaison with employees and officials from many different departments, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills are critical to success. As an employee of a municipality’s elected officials, a primary job duty of a city manager is to implement public policy and communicate policy changes to city employees and citizens. For this reason, a successful city manager must have the communications and leadership skills to create effective working relationships with elected city officials, salaried city servants and citizens. Necessary skills here include being responsive and flexible and remaining calm under pressure. Perhaps most importantly, a successful city manager must be willing to work a varying schedule in a career where no two days will ever look the same.

Salary and Benefits

According to, nationwide salaries for city managers range from $40,000 to $150,000 a year. The average salary is $57,000. In the first nine years of their career, the typical city manager can expect to see periodic salary increases in the $5,000 to $15,000 range. Once the 10-year mark is reached, reports earning potential can reach $97,000. For city managers with two or more decades of work experience, expect an annual salary averaging $112,000. Advanced-degree holders who have an emergency management masters or similar degree typically earn salaries at the higher end of this scale from the start of their careers. As a city manager, you are a civil servant, which means your salary is set and adjusted through the city council and may fluctuate with the city budget. In addition, city managers typically have excellent benefits, including health insurance, life insurance and access to financial management services. A city manager can also become eligible for an annual bonus, commission or profit sharing program.

Image from Flickr’s Creative Commons

About the Author: Mark Whittington holds a degree in public administration. He is a retired city manager who volunteers on various city committees and also serves as an alumni mentor for new graduates.

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